Harry Shearer squeezes through the cracks of show business
He's been a featured player on Saturday Night Live, held the bass chair in comic rockers Spinal Tap and provided more than a dozen voices on The Simpsons (neighborly Ned Flanders and officious Rev. Lovejoy are my faves).
But Harry Shearer knows his work often sprouts through the cracks in show business: from his long-running NPR program Le Show, to his media essays on the Huffington Post Web site and most recently, his collection of satirical tunes about the Bush administration, Songs of the Bushmen.
"I always have gone where the most creativity and freedom have been available," said Shearer, calling from Los Angeles. "It's available at two places: at the top of show business if you make absolutely mindless mediocrities that sell a zillion dollars, or at the dawn of new media, (where) you can do interesting things and then, all of a sudden, the guys come in and say, 'Wait a minute, these are the rules' and then it's time to leave."
That may have beeen a not-so-subtle reference to Clear Channel, which declined to sell Shearer billboard space to advertise Bushmen because it featured a caricature of President Bush with a bone through his nose.
After hearing about the controversy, I decided to catch up with Shearer, who has got to be the only guy in showbiz with acting credits on the pilot to Leave It to Beaver (where he played an early version of Eddie Haskill), Wayne’s World 2 and Godzilla.
Deggans: So why do an album about the Bush administration now, at a time when their poll numbers are low and they’re on the way out?
Shearer: Well, I had been accumulating these songs for a while and it just seemed to me I’d better hurry up and do it before they became inmates…If they’re in office, I think (the songs) would have had sort of a more bitter or angry tone to them. But I was able to, as they were leaving, still be kind of savage but in a way get into their heads and kind of imagine their bittersweet point of view.
D: Now, I may have heard this wrong but did I hear that you were having some problems because of the illustration on the cover?
S: Yeah, you heard it right. Our good friends at Clear Channel Outdoor refused billboards in Chicago that had the cover art because they said it was unacceptable, so I immediately branded them with a term that Donald Rumsfeld had applied to the Iraqi insurgency a few years ago. I called them “dead-enders.” They’re the last people to know that it’s okay to criticize Bush now.
D: I was gonna say, how low does his approval rating have to go?…
S: The normal risk-averse corporation would look at those figures and say, I guess it’s okay now but Clear Channel apparently is not normal.
D: I was wondering, are you finding that even now that people are resistant to criticism of these establishment figures?
S: Well, you know, my jury is out. Let’s put it this way, I look at my schedule for the next few weeks and I’m not seeing any television appearances on it as of yet, but that may be because the bookers are on vacation … or the hookers are on vacation. I don’t know, but …
D: Maybe you should put that promotional money on hookers instead…
S: That’s right. Hookers for Bookers is not a bad charity. But we’ll see, we’ll see. You know, I’m the last person to go to the place of ascribing political conspiracy motivations to people. When I was at Saturday Night Live and they said you’re gonna be the guy who’s gonna do all our political stuff, and they never put one of the pieces on the air, I chose to take it personally. And a couple of other cast members said, ‘You idiot, it’s just ‘cause they didn’t want you making fun of Reagan.’ So we’ll see. I don’t know.
Here's a video from the album, his song about Karl Rove, dubbed Turd Blossom Special
Click below for the rest of the interview...
D: That’s just amazing. And as I’m listening to these tunes, I’m struck by how absurd these political figures are.
S: Well, you know, for that I think we need to point a big finger at the national media… and we’re watching it again. NPR talked on their newscast at the top of the hour about Iran’s nuclear ambition, and nobody mentions, hey, there’s a national intelligence estimate from this government that says they don’t have any nuclear ambitions in terms of weapons. We’re not reminded of that. That was old, that was way back in December. That’s ancient history. And so, you know, the same cupidity and credibility is being accorded to the same crowd all over again. It reminds me of nothing so much – and I’m not a big fan – but it reminds me of nothing so much as Charlie Brown and Lucy and the football, you know?
D: Right, right.
S: And it’s like, gee, how many times do they have to have the football snatched out from under them before they figure out that maybe this is not a group that you take at their word? But, yeah, they are comical figures. I mean, Donald Rumsfeld … to go back and watch his press conferences now is to be amazed that anybody took this guy seriously for a minute. He’s so arch and so comical in his approach. And then there are tragic comic figures, to me, like Colin Powell who, you know, is just never gonna get his reputation back, you know? And what did he do with his anger? Where is that book, you know?
D: He’s the only one who hasn’t written one.
S: Well, yeah, and Condi.
D: Well, hers is coming.
S: Hers is coming, yeah, but it’s like, gee, little Scott McClellan got it out and Colin is still sitting there, simmering, you know, on the back of the stove.
D: And it is amazing. I mean, five years ago, six years ago, you never would have thought that Colin Powell would be the odd man out, you know?
S: I think it’s remarkable that they took this guy who gave his name to a doctrine of what we learned from the Vietnam War and said, you’re gonna eat that now, publically. You’re gonna consume that. Pretty amazing.
D: Exactly. I’ve been very interested in your work critiquing the media. I’ve read your stuff on the Huffington Post -- What’s your sense about where we are right now?
S: I think the most interesting, instructive stuff to do is to go back and read the proclamations of people in the media in the period immediately following 9/11. And that is … that will give you a great, great sad laugh – all the proclamations about, oh, we’re gonna get … there’s not going to be all this celebrity fluff. We’re gonna get a lot more serious about covering international news ‘cause this stuff really impinges on us now – all the way down to my favorite, which was when the NFL resumed football games, the first week they desisted from having any of the normal violent sound effects of the crashes and crunches in the game action ‘cause that was out of respect.
D: Yeah, right.
S: (laughs) And, you know, here we are. Look, I have been, I think, doubly appalled. I grew up a news junkie, I’m still addicted, although my focus has shifted to a lot of media outside this country for reasons of needing information. But the twin prongs of my disillusionment have been the run-up to the war and then the mis-coverage of the disaster in New Orleans, for which the national media are still congratulating themselves. Hey, we missed the story, we did great. We sat there, calling attention to something that was not really the story, you know?
Scratch most Americans and ask them what happened in New Orleans and most of them will say “a natural disaster.” And very few will say a federally mandated, federally built hurricane-protection system failed under a stress that was much less than advertised that the city could withstand. What are we supposed to do with that, you know? It’s one thing not to be able to cover a story that the administration is doing its best to keep you from covering, but this was happening in plain view, and they couldn’t even cover it. That’s pretty bad.
D: Exactly. And journalists also promised a national dialogue on poverty and race.
S: (laughs) Oh, yeah. Well, can you count the number of times somebody declared that this is going to start a national … a long-delayed national conversation about race, you know, starting with the OJ trial and coming every few years? But personally, I believe that we keep having a national conversation about race to avoid having what we really don’t wanna have, which is a national conversation about class.
D: To get back to the record, in writing these songs, was it as simple as just kinda going down the list of the people who’ve been disgraced in this administration? How did you decide how you were going to write these tunes and how you were going to tell these stories?
S: In some cases, it was as people walked out the door, I just thought this is the time to sort of sum them up. In the case of John Yoo, it was, here’s a really important guy in the history of this administration that most people don’t know about or don’t know his identity, so it was sort of a, you know, meet the new boss. And in the case of Bolton and Wolfowitz, I just thought that the most pugnacious voices for the war and for a draw-out, pugnacious attitude toward the rest of the world deserved sort of special treatment.
D: So, I’m also interested in the way you’ve kind of brought what you’re doing online, with the Web site My Damn Channel.
S: This is an operation started by Rob Barnett, who is an executive at CBS and MTV and Viacom, and so he knew what was wrong with the broadcasting model and proposed to fix it in broadband by coming to artists like me and Don Was and saying, you know, hey, we’ll pay for you to do stuff and you do what you want and we’ll split the advertising revenue and you’ll own the copyright and, God, that sounded good to me. So it’s been great. We’re gonna do two videos from the record next week, the Condi Rice song and Turd Blossom Special will be made videos for My Damn Channel….I’m a very big fan of You Suck At Photoshop, which I think is really funny and of the stuff that Don Was is doing musically but, you know, I think the main thing is, a place as crowded as the Internet, you just have to keep doing stuff to get attention to the stuff that you’re putting up. It’s easy to put stuff up there, it’s not easy to get people to notice the stuff’s up there.
D: I may have a different picture of what you’re doing than you do but it struck me that even though you’ve been involved with, as you said, Saturday Night Live and Spinal Tap and The Simpsons and all these great show-business products, that for a lot of your art, you’ve had to kind of find the cracks of show business.
S: That is exactly … you have put your finger on it. That’s exactly my strategy. (laughter)
D: Why do you think that is? I mean, is it that the mainstream is not quite ready for you, or …?
S: I would describe it as an a--hole avoidance scheme.
D: (laughs) Then you wouldn’t be in show business at all, my friend.
S: That’s correct, so the cracks are the only place to go.
D: It’s ironic that you would have to go to the cracks to avoid the a--holes.
S: Yeah, isn’t it indeed? (laughter) Look, it’s linguistically ironic. You know, it’s like they’ll lie down and spread ‘em for the most egregious crap, you know, to promote stuff that’s either stupefyingly mindless or worse, but when you try to do something that, for better or worse, is at least trying to be funny about stuff that’s really going on, they stare at you glassy-eyed as if, well, what do you mean? Why do you want to do that? What do you want us to talk about that for?